There has been a great deal of discussion around when theatres will reopen.
Initially, we were told early June, but of course that has now been pushed back. Andrew Lloyd Webber said last month that theatres opening any time before late September is “ridiculous”.
However, Cameron Mackintosh has very recently stated that “until social distancing doesn't exist anymore, we can't even plan to reopen." He believes that West End and Broadway theatres are unlikely to open until early 2021. This is statement is heart breaking, but he is right.
Theatres including The National Theatre and The Curve in Leicester are also working towards opening next year - all under a worst-case scenario.
All theatres have their own plans to get themselves back up and running. Some would be ready to go as soon as possible, but some will open much later and sadly, some not at all.
Rufus Norris, Artistic Director at The National Theatre has said that they would be ready to return to rehearsal in July with a September opening, however he couldn’t fathom that actually happening. He says his plans are ‘flexible’, suggesting that opening in 2021 would be more feasible.
Norris has also mentioned that the theatre, like many I’m sure, is ‘haemorrhaging money’ and is in a ‘pretty precarious environment at the moment’.
Chichester Festival Theatre has just announced that its programme for the remainder of the year has been postponed until next 2021, with many following suit.
We are all desperate to return to theatre and get back to something that we know and love. But, before we can consider any of this, the health and safety of our actors and audiences must take precedence.
As Lloyd Webber has said: ‘We need these places, many are old, safe as possible. We’ll self-clean handles, wipe doors, utilise every safety measure. People won’t wish to crowd into small clustered seats again. But we must reopen.’
In the meantime, many companies and artists are turning to Arts Council England for financial support from its £160M emergency funds. ACE have said, “Our responsibility is to sustain our sector as best we can.” This support will of course help for a short while, but what next?
Playwright James Graham has said the industry needs an "aggressive government bailout" to save UK theatres. He is concerned for the fight ahead with the Government and how the industry will look in a few months when "all of the reserves will have dried up and there will be no money left”, and the “skills base won’t exist in three months’ time without help, because people will have to leave the industry and go and do something else.”
As we know many of our professionals have taken up other jobs for the time being, including working in supermarkets and other areas of the frontline. Most actors have other work and know this way of working.
When the lights eventually go back on, I think things will look quite different for some time. It will be a challenging and emotional for us all.
I think social distancing will play a huge part in how theatres will reopen. Some may have limited scheduling, playing to smaller audiences. This might not be a cost-effective way of operating, but for those few who have money to spare and want to see a show - it’s a win.
For those who cannot afford theatre prices straight away, Lyn Gardner from The Stage may have the answer. In her recent opinion piece ‘Rural touring could offer the quickest route out of lockdown’ she says that one of the best ways forward would be for theatres to take their productions out of the cities and into the local community, rather than people travelling to them.
Not only will this help with opening theatre up to new audience members, who may have discovered and fallen in love with the arts online; it will also alleviate some of the huge expenses working within big city theatres.
But what will the programmes look like?
Some Artistic Directors are concerned that productions will need to be quite tame and light-hearted, to win people back through theatre doors.
Fiona Allan from Birmingham Hippodrome said theatre would “need to have a much more commercial programme over the first couple of years, with much diminished artistic investment”.
Sarah Brigham, Artistic Director at Derby Theatre has stated that she is quite “frustrated” with this idea and says, “that work is needed, but in a mix”.
My thoughts are that now people have had the opportunity of seeing a vast array of online theatre, they will want to be able to choose from those big iconic productions, the hard-hitting plays, and the entertaining musicals. Everyone is different, so for theatres to get their audiences back, they need to provide this diversity and not feel that everyone wants only upbeat performances.
And what about theatre companies coming back?
Every day we see theatres fighting for survival, artists and crews losing their livelihoods and future production schedules being curtailed. It is truly devastating for everyone theatre - no matter how established you are.
Life won’t be the same for our industry.
Whatever happens to the arts in the future, we will all embrace the change and adjust to it, because we must. Theatre has been around for thousands of years. It has survived everything in the past - wars, plagues, political upheaval, closure by regimes which disapproved of theatre and economic uncertainty. It always comes back because story telling is what we as human beings do. This is an industry that we love and it’s a huge part of our lives and our culture.
For now, all we can do is stay positive and plan for our come back. We must not give up. We shall be back!